Focus is incredibly important. But often we struggle to turn it on when we need it. The right rituals can help a lot.
The human brain is a giant association machine. As neuropsychologist Donald Hebb famously put it, “neurons that fire together, wire together.” Repeated patterns form stronger connections. Thus if you pair a consistent ritual with focused work, it can be easier to transition your mind into a state of productivity.
But rituals can also go wrong. If everything needs to be perfect to start working, you’ll rarely do it. Worse, the ritual can become a tool of procrastination to avoid doing hard work.
What Makes a Good Ritual?
A good ritual for focused work has two parts:
- It should be accessible most, if not all, of the time you plan to work. If you study best in the library, but the library closes on weekends when you need to study, it’s not good for a ritual.
- It should assist with getting into work, rather than needlessly adding steps that turn it into a tool for procrastinating. If you need to meditate for ninety minutes, drive two hours to a log cabin and do a cleanse diet before you start working, you’re not going to get much done.
Good rituals can be done quickly, on-demand and they should assist with getting into a focused frame of mind. Here are some of steps I take when I need to focus deeply:
1. Put on Noise-Cancelling Headphones.
Wearing headphones has two effects. First, you can block out some of the ambient sound around you. Even if you can’t afford fancy noise-cancelling headphones, regular headphones with some rain sounds playing will do the trick.
Second, headphones create a social cost for interrupting you. If someone needs to tap a shoulder to get your attention, this creates a subtle barrier to being interrupted.
Be careful what kind of music you listen to. In one study, researchers found listening to music with lyrics caused a substantial decline in performance for those studying for the SAT. The explanation is that your working memory is limited, and so you can’t help but represent some of the words in the part of your brain used for storing verbal information. This limits your space on verbal tasks (but impairs visual tasks like design or art less so). White noise wasn’t found to have the same impact, so it’s your best bet if you need to focus hard.
2. Switch Off All Notifications.
A necessary step for any focused work session is to prevent the distractions you can control. This means, at minimum:
- Turn off all notifications on your phone.
- Make sure your email inbox is closed.
- Turn off notifications on your computer.
An additional step might be to put your phone in a desk drawer before you start working. Sometimes the impulse to check your phone comes from you, not others, so its best to not have it as a visual cue.
What if there are important messages that require a reply? There are two strategies here:
- The first is to allow select, emergency channels to go through and interrupt you, but turn off everything else. I might allow calls to go through, but not texts, so someone can call me if there’s an emergency, but text messages can be followed up with later. Social media or non-urgent push notifications should definitely be silenced.
- The other strategy is to define short, focused check-in times. So if your boss requires that you respond to all emails within an hour without exception, you can set up an hourly check-in where you require yourself to only open those emails that fit this description. Thus, even in a setting that demands extreme email responsiveness can still allow focused work.
3. Put Up a Do Not Disturb Sign.
The sign needn’t be literal—telling people around you that you’re going to do some focused work is often enough.
This is especially helpful if you work from home. You may have kids, spouses or roommates that want to engage with you. Signaling to them when you’re trying to do focused work is a good way to prevent being interrupted in the middle of a session.
If you have your own room for working, closing the door also serves this policy as it fits into our social conditioning to knock before entering. Raising the barriers for potential interruptions can increase your duration of focus.
4. Plan Your Work Session.
The three previous suggestions all have to do with external distractions. But much of why we struggle with focused work have to do with internal distractions. We get restless, bored, frustrated or simply feel anxious about the task ahead.
The best way to deal with these uncomfortable emotions is to plan out your session. What exactly are you going to work on? How are you going to work on it? What steps will you follow?
To see what this looks like in practice, imagine you’re a writer working on an important piece, but you don’t know how to start. This kind of writer’s block can be a recipe for distraction and procrastination. Instead, imagine sitting down and writing out exactly how you’re going to work for the next three hours. Do you need to do more research? Do you need to write an outline? Do you need to brainstorm or write a bad first draft to get the ideas out?
Once you have a concrete plan like this, getting started is relatively easy—you just have to follow your plan. But without a plan, it’s easy to play on your phone or look at email as you aren’t sure what to focus on.
5. Move to a Focused Space.
Our memories are context-dependent. Our attitudes and habits flow from the environment we’re in. You’re more likely to feel the urge to eat when near the fridge, than when driving your car, for instance.
Even more, certain memories and skills are more accessible in certain contexts. If you study in the same room you take an exam in, you’ll do better due to this preferential activation. Thus consistently picking the same space for focused work can tune you into the right state of mind.
An additional step can be to pick focused spaces that limit the kind of unfocused work you can do. So if you don’t need the internet to do your current task, picking a space without internet access can be a big boost to your focus.
6. Note Your Starting Time.
Tracking your deep work hours is an essential step. It’s one of the key practices Cal Newport suggests in our course Life of Focus. The idea is that you maintain a tally or timelog of when you do focused work throughout the day. This makes focus more salient than the simple feeling of being busy all day.
The way I do this is by jotting down the starting time of a deep work session. This not only makes tracking my deep work hours easier (since our memories of how much undistracted work we engaged in can be fallible), but it also sets the intention to work deeply.
Setting the intention to focus is half of the battle. Noting the time encourages you to get moving on your work right away.
7. Go Easy on Yourself.
Anxiety is a major cause of procrastination. You feel the upcoming work will be unpleasant, so you find a way to distract yourself to get out of it.
Sometimes this anxiety can come from the standard you expect from yourself. You want to write a brilliant essay, but have no ideas. You need to do a practice test, but you don’t feel like you’ve mastered the material. You’re working on an important piece of code, but worry that if you choose the wrong design pattern you’ll be making a mess you need to fix later.
The obvious, rational response to this is simply to lower your standards temporarily. Be okay writing a draft you’ll throw in the trash just to get the ideas out. Be okay with failing your first practice test as you learn a new subject. Be okay with needing to rewrite a module later once the best design is clear.
But we often don’t do the rational thing. Thus, it can sometimes be a good step to explicitly confront your expectations and anxiety directly as a step in your ritual. “I’m just going to show up” is something you can even write down on a post it before you start, reminding you that what matters is giving yourself space to focus, rather than reaching arbitrary performance standards.
What Rituals Do You Use?
Combined, all seven steps here would take less than five minutes. But they can make a huge difference in your ability to work for hours on hard tasks.
What focused work rituals do you have? What are your major obstacles to focusing in your work that you’d like to overcome? Share your thoughts in the comments.